Before Matt Berry became a cult comedy actor and writer, he was a Mike Oldfield obsessive and musician making it up as he goes along. For new album ‘Music For Insomniacs’ he stayed up all night so you don’t have to


Last night, London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, played host to the BAFTA Television Awards 2014. Matt Berry was there, nominated in the Best Situation Comedy category for Toast of London, a show in which he stars as unfortunate jobbing actor and voiceover artist Steven Toast; a show that he co-created and co-wrote alongside Father Ted creator Arthur Matthews. Berry applauded politely as he lost out to BBC Three’s Him & Her. Then he got drunk. He thinks he went to the awards’ after party at The Grosvenor Hotel, but he knows that the party did, at some point, move back to his flat, until something like 4am. And so instead of meeting at Berry’s Thames-side home as planned, no longer fit for purpose, we meet at the pub next door. “It was some night,” he says on the exhale as he sits down. He doesn’t look as bad as he feels, although I suspect he would do had he won last night. Or maybe not. “Once you’ve lost, you might as well get pissed,” he says. The second series of Toast of London starts filming in four weeks, and so Berry is midway through growing a beard bushy enough to carve out Steven Toast’s manly shoe brush moustache from. It’s the official reason why we’re not taking photos today, although Berry later tells me it’s because he knew how hung over he’d be.

Berry lives in one of those enviable apartments that you only ever see as a tourist in London, in one of those luxury Wharf conversions you need to be on a boat tour to get a proper look at. It’s all he’s ever wanted, and he says that when it came on the market three years ago he took it almost entirely from its riverside balcony. “The estate agent opened the door and I walk straight through to the outside and was like, ‘yes, this is the one’. I hadn’t even looked inside.”

This spot – even more sanctuary-like on a calm Monday in early summer – is a reminder of just how well Matt Berry is doing right now. Earlier in the month he turned 40, but while he’s never been more in demand than he is now, his professional life began as he approached another milestone a decade earlier. Today, he marvels at the fact that he was 29 when he took his first acting job, as Todd Rivers/Dr. Lucien Sanchez on cult ’80s spoof series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – a show within a show that ham-fistedly mashed E.R. and The Twilight Zone to hilarious and bizarre affect. “It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago,” he says, “and now I’m 40! You’ve got to do as much stuff as possible because it goes so quick. That’s the only thing I’ve taken from it – ‘shit, man, it don’t half move quick!’.”

Todd Rivers was a star turn in a trio of then underrated performances from Berry and show creators Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness. Berry quit his job at The London Dungeon and, quite unexpectedly, became an actor. “[Up until then] there was no plan to do comedy,” he tells me, “and I certainly wasn’t thinking about making any money out of it.”

If there’s a thread that runs through all of Berry’s comedy characters since (The IT Crowd’s arrogant and absurd megalomaniac Douglas Reynholm, The Mighty Boosh’s angry zoo owner and upper class bully Dixon Bainbridge, the ill-fated Steven Toast and the testosterone-filled lothario of Beef from Vic Reeves’ and Bob Mortimer’s more recent House of Fools), it’s the bullishness that comes with that voice of his – that booming, velvet voice that constantly sounds overdubbed but ever so slightly too high in the mix and just out of synch. It started with Dr. Sanchez and has had more than a few convinced that Matt Berry is simply playing himself at varying decibels, regardless of the role. Yet on meeting him you can’t fail to realise just how good a comic actor he is, even if his characters are nuanced. I can tell that it’s not too much of a stretch for him to deliver that burr, but it’s not him. He supposes people do expect him to be like Reynholm or Bainbridge or Toast, “but it’s all bullshit and greasepaint, isn’t it?”

“I’d like to think that there’s not any of me in those characters,” he says. “I mean, Toast, as an example, he’s a bunch of actors that I’ve worked with and the characteristics of them that I found most funny. I’m nothing like him. He’s pissed off with his lot. He thinks he should be a lot more well known and successful; that is not where I am,” he insists. “He does this thing where he makes out that he doesn’t know who other actors are because he can’t deal with competition. I’ve seen actors do that.”

When I ask him what he tells people he does for a living if ever asked, he says: “Oh God, I don’t know. I’d probably say I’m self employed and hope they leave me alone.”

It’s impossible to ignore Berry’s acting career, but a more pressing matter is his fourth album, ‘Music For Insomniacs’, released the day we meet [19 May 2014] via Acid Jazz Records. Contrary to how it may look now that Berry has made a name for himself as a comic actor, a career in music was always where he saw his life heading, and his latest album is a particularly poignant one.

‘Music For Insomniacs’ is a record made for a function, and also Matt Berry’s ode to a hero he found as a child. He was 12 when he first heard ‘Tubular Bells’ by Mike Oldfield; it affected him deeply. “That made its mark with me,” he says. “It was the thing that stuck with me because it wasn’t a pop song, it was the length of a whole side. It sounded like chaos and I could sense that there was a damaged person behind the whole thing, and if you’re 12 and you feel like that yourself, it’s a big deal.”

Berry was so inspired by Oldfield that he started making music himself. “My parents did an amazing thing – they bought me an organ, like a grandad type organ,” he says, miming the cumbersome instrument. “So they bought that but the coolest thing they did was they totally left it up to me to decide whether I would play it or not. There was no forcing me to take lessons or anything like that. They knew that I wanted one, but that was it. And because there was no pressure to learn it I just approached it from an ideas angle. So I couldn’t play anyone else’s songs because I can’t read music and I couldn’t then, so I’ve had to make up my own. And from there I got a 4-track tape recorder, and I was fascinated by that, and I was off.”

He’s felt his way around music ever since, playing the organ, guitar and bass however the hell he likes and self-recording his four records to date: ‘Opium’ (2008), ‘Witchazel’ (2011), ‘Kill The Wolf’ (2013) and the new ‘Music For Insomniacs’. It was whilst writing music before The Mighty Boosh that Berry was offered his first role as Dr. Sanchez, and in 2006 Steve Coogan didn’t seem to care about Berry’s lack of music academia when he asked him to compose the music for his Saxondale series. The same went for Richard Ayoade who wrote spoof Jesus Christ rock opera AD/BC with Berry in 2004.

“The rules of music stop so many people,” he tells me. “My band, for instance, they’re all technically amazing, and they say, ‘these songs you’ve written shouldn’t work, because you’re going against all these things,’ and I’m like, ‘yeah, but they sound alright though, right?’ And they’re like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, but they shouldn’t’. They wouldn’t be able to write them because they don’t want to look like they don’t know what they’re doing, whereas I just don’t give a fuck.”

Berry contests it, but ‘Music For Insomniacs’ is a far cry from his previous albums. It’s completely instrumental, for one, and performed solely on a synthesizer. It’s also divided into two 23-minute suites.

Where ‘Opium’, ‘Witchazel’ and ‘Kill the Wolf’ were earthy, folk-based records, featuring songs about the perils of the countryside and woodland animals, ‘Music For Insomniacs’ is purposefully out of this world, just like ‘Tubular Bells’ and John Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ (another Matt Berry touchstone), and just where your head should be at 3am. Berry wrote it whilst suffering from chronic sleeplessness, in order to occupy another endless night and to provide fellow insomniacs with a cure. The way he saw it was, the ambient music he was advised to listen to was too uneventful, thus causing his mind to wander, whilst anything too chaotic was a distraction from nodding off. There had to be a medium and ‘Music For Insomniacs’ is Berry’s – an album that dovetails from Oldfield homage to twinkling lullaby; from strange field recordings to rising robo nursery rhymes; from near silence to motorik krautrock.

It’s a seriously composed score for a serious problem, which is not how Berry’s musical output has been seen up until now. On one hand it seems unfair that his music should be considered a joke just because of his increasingly successful career in comedy, but Berry’s seemingly blurred the lines a little himself on that front. If you take his voice out of his previous records – which can’t help but recall Dr. Sanchez’s brief foray into pop music (‘One Track Lover’) or Steven Toast’s sudden musical outbursts – plenty of humour remains. ‘Love Is A Fool’ from ‘Opium’, for example, is a lounge track purposefully introduced in Berry’s bawdy acting tone, and much has been made of the line “I don’t give a damn for the cows and the sheep as they strain to excrete” on ‘Witchazel’. Berry’s two worlds occasionally bleed into one another, too, with ‘Witchazel’ track ‘Take My Hand’ appearing as the theme song to Toast of London and the melody of a track performed in a number of episodes planted into the closing minutes of ‘Music For Insomniacs Part 1’. The artwork for ‘Music For Insomniacs’ hangs in Toast’s theatrical agent’s office, too, and the fact that Berry likes to have Toast sing when he can doesn’t help matters. And yet much of ‘Kill The Wolf’ and its younger siblings are in fact no less daft than Foxygen, say. Forget it’s the guy from The IT Crowd for a second and I’d be surprised if your initial thought is that this is a novelty record.

“I think my comedy used to get in the way of being serious,” says Berry, “but I don’t think it does anymore. You’ve just got to have a bit of form. I’ve had three albums that have done alright, critically, and I’m not doing it for a fucking joke. I think you’ve got to prove yourself and do enough stuff for people to see that you’re taking it seriously. Plus, this country is not good at dealing with anyone who does more than one thing. In every other European country it’s not a big thing, but here it’s like, ‘hang on a minute, you’re the funny guy, what’s this?!’. But as the albums have come out and it’s obvious that a lot of work goes into everything it’s kinda shifted a bit, I think. It’s too much work for one joke.”


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